Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

September 6, 2013

Race to the Top

Grant could eventually help schools throughout Kentucky

The Independent

ASHLAND — While not one of the 22 Kentucky school districts that will share in the benefits of a best-in-the-nation $41 million federal Race to the Top grant is close to northeast Kentucky, State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said he hopes the district-level initiatives lead to statewide programs to improve student performance. If so, schools in this region could eventually indirectly benefit for the grant centered on rural districts in the Owensboro-Bowling Green area.

In fact, by the start of the 2014-15 school year, Holliday said he hopes to point to the results in the 22 district and say, “Look at what these guys are doing.”

The huge grant certainly shows the advantage of school districts working together for a single purpose. After all,  the consortium of local districts snared the largest award in the national competition for the district-level grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

“This $41 million ... gives Kentucky an opportunity to be an incubator of innovation that will make a dramatic difference in the lives of our children,” the governor said. “It will enable us to drive reform at the local level, by developing plans to personalize and deep student learning.”

Whether those are false promises or realities will be determined by whether the districts achieve their goal of closing achievement gaps and better preparing the youngest and oldest students for their next challenges, whether it’s kindergarten, first grade or college.

The grant received by the Kentucky districts is unique because it’s being funneled to rural schools, state education officials said. Districts receiving the assistance serve about 60,000 students. More than half live in rural areas with pockets of poverty, and about one-third are at demonstrated risk of academic failure, officials said.

The winning grant was a collaborative effort by two regional organizations: the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative and the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative.

Grant money will be used to hire mentors to work with home-based child-care providers, Head Start, churches and day-care operators to improve literacy skills among Kentucky’s youngest students. Kindergarten-readiness screenings given to nearly 31,500 Kentucky youngsters in 2012 showed only one in four were ready for school, Beshear said.

“Every child, no matter where he or she is born, deserves a good start in life, deserves a chance to be successful,” the governor said. “And we’ve got to do a better job in Kentucky of getting our kids off to that good start in life.”

The governor is right, of course. This state’s high schools already are graduating too many students who are prepared for neither college nor the work force. One way of erasing this negative statistic is to assure that those who went to kindergarten are ready for the first grade. Apparently, many are not.

The grant also will bolster college and career readiness counseling to help steer students toward the next phase of their lives beyond high school, Beshear said. Participating schools also are working with an initiative known as the “Leader in Me” program that stresses individual responsibility, goal setting and team work among students. Hart County Superintendent Ricky Line said the program is a “game changer.”

At least initially, the grant will have zero impact on school districts in this area, but if the programs developed and implemented in the 22 school districts serve as a model for improving education throughout the state, all schools in Kentucky may join the “Race to the Top.”

However, unlike the school districts sharing in the grant, schools in the rest of Kentucky are unlikely to have the funds to hire mentors and implement the other improvements funded by the grant. In fact, with state funding for schools flat, districts are struggling to keep the programs they have. There simply is no money to implement new ones. Unless that changes, this state’s “Race to the Top” could be slowed to a crawl.